The Comedy of Errors (more or less) review: Shakespeare with a fun twist

When the Shakespeare North Playhouse – a wooden replica of a 16th century theatre, housed in a gleamingly modern building – opened in the Lancashire town of Prescot last summer, The Observer’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, described it as “a hybrid of the authentic and the improvised… of the scholarly and the popular, and of ancient and modern”. And he could equally have been describing this “thoroughly engaging” new production, said Clare Brennan, also in The Observer – a slickly contemporary spin on The Comedy of Errors, written by Elizabeth Godber and Nick Lane. In the programme, they say that their ambition, in “messing about” with Shakespeare, was to give audiences a “fun night” – and this “more than fulfils” it.

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The pair have deposited Shakespeare’s comedy of identical twins and mistaken identity in the 1980s, said Michael Davies in What’s on Stage, and repositioned it “as a minor rerun of the Wars of the Roses”, in which Prescot and Scarborough (where the production transfers after its initial run) are vying “over their claims to true northernness”. This is broad comedy – as the Bard intended – “neatly updated to resonate with a 21st century audience”. 

The play “takes its cue from Isobel McArthur’s Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), which gave an irreverent pop-culture spin to Jane Austen”, said Mark Fisher in The Guardian, and like that play, it mixes in modern language and bursts of pop hits. The recorded songs, by the likes of Madonna and Feargal Sharkey, add variety, but their addition elongates what should be a “brisk comedy to the point where its one central joke wears thin. Still, there are plenty of laughs along the way.”

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Shakespeare’s story about separated twins is complicated enough, said Clive Davis in The Times. To it, Godber and Lane have added “twist upon twist”, making it a real challenge to follow. But the “joie de vivre of the performances in this intimate, in-the-round venue” help camouflage the “wrinkles” in the quirky plot; and even if it all seems quite mad, it is – for the most part – also great fun. 

Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, until 25 March; then SJT, Scarborough, 30 March- 15 April

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